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ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penelope Cruz, Lucas Black, Bruce Dern
Director:  Billy Bob Thornton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Trailers, Filmographies
Length:  117 Minutes
Release Date:  May 8, 2001

Film ***

All the Pretty Horses was, and continues to be, pretty much marketed as a romance picture.  The beautiful sunset landscape on the cover of the box with the pictures of handsome Matt Damon and pretty Penelope Cruz on the cover enforces that concept.   Someone should have known better.

Those who pop in this disc expecting to see a love story are going to be as confused and disappointed as those who thought Eyes Wide Shut was going to be an exercise in eroticism.  All the Pretty Horses is a film with more spirit and heart than with romance.  As scripted by Ted Tally based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, it’s a picture that captures the notion of being young and setting out into the world, about the growing process, and ultimately, about the need for redemption for things done and things left undone.

Thornton seems an excellent choice for this material.  He doesn’t mythologize the West, but sees it for a system of simple values and ideas surrounded by a world that’s far more complicated.  As the picture opens, young John Grady Cole (Damon) and his good friend Lacey Rawlins (Thomas) find their lives changed, and view it as an opportunity.  They leave their native Texas and cross the Rio Grande into Mexico for new adventures and new chances.

A traveling companion, Blevins (Black), joins up with them, to the suspicion of Rawlins.  “He’s gonna be trouble,” he insists, but Cole sees in him a young man with an uncertain past and future, just like the rest of them.  Blevins later becomes a hunted man for stealing (his own?) horse, and sets off away from his companions to keep them out of harm’s way.  It’s not the last they see of him.

The two friends settle on a Mexican horse ranch, where Cole finds himself right at home breaking wild broncos and discussing breeding, but finds his world turned upside down when he falls for the rancher’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra (Cruz).  Their romance barely lights a spark before he, Rawlins, and Blevins are reunited in a Mexican jail.

From there, the story takes on a strange, almost detached quality, as though the intrusion of unpleasant events left the narrative a little disoriented.  There is a definite impression that the three men will never leave that place alive, and the desperation comes to the surface when Cole finds himself brutally defending himself against an unprovoked attack.

The point is, I think, that certain events can seriously derail the course of a life.  It’s one thing if said life has been carefully planned out like a road map from point A to point B, but in the case of Cole, who embraces and embodies reckless freedom in all its redeeming and tragic qualities, such disruptions are even harder to come out from.  Like the thunderstorm they flee from early in the film that turns valleys into rivers, the landscapes change, the roads disappear, and all one is left with is looking back at the past in order to try and find some sort of semblance of the future.

This all culminates in a scene of such beautiful simplicity, it might be easy to overlook the significance.  Appearing before a Texas judge (Dern), Cole spills the story of his adventures, and is believed.  But before Cole can go back to his life, he seeks the judge out at his home.  “I didn’t want you thinking I’m something that I’m not,” he tells him, as he breaks into tears.  It is a confession, of sorts, to help Cole purge himself of what had gone before and make himself ready for what happens next.

What does the future hold for Cole?   It’s hard to say, but we’re left with the impression that there will never be another year like this one for him.  It’s the kind of year he’ll always look back on, when he was young and full of fire.  He’ll remember the sense of awe he had crossing that river, the fear, the desperation, the wonder, and yes, even the love.  I suppose Alejandra will always be a wistful, beautiful dream to him.

This isn’t a film that will appeal to all tastes…as mentioned, especially those under the impression that they’re going to see a love story.  The point of this film is the capturing of a restless spirit that most people have felt at one time or another, and many lose over time, like we see happening to Cole.  The movie is like a photograph of a memory, not of people, places and events, but feelings.

Video ***1/2

This is another terrific anamorphic widescreen transfer from Columbia Tri Star, with some of the most beautiful photography of recent memory.  Thornton captures his Western outdoors with a style and a passion, and his images teem with life and color.  The transfer shows excellent sharpness and detail, with no distracting grain (even in low lit scenes).  Interiors are not quite as perfect, with some noticeable softness from time to time and a little less natural rendering of flesh tones, but they are very slight and hardly a deterrence from the overall quality. 

Audio ****

The sound is extremely important in this picture, and the 5.1 soundtrack delivers.  There is natural ambience from beginning to end, with the sounds of galloping horses, thunderstorms, or even quieter moments accented by birds, crickets, and slight echoes.  This is a film that invites the viewer not just to look at, but to experience the natural wonder of the West through these character’s eyes, and the soundtrack makes the listening an enveloping experience.  Crossovers from front stage to rear stage are smoothly handled, and Marty Stuart’s beautiful score is a real plus, too.

Features *1/2

Only some trailers and selected filmographies.

Summary:

All the Pretty Horses is about all the recklessness of youth in all its glory and gloom, and yes, falling in love is part of that, but only one part.  Those looking for a simple romantic date movie might be put off, but for those willing to find that part of themselves that still seeks adventure and the unknown, this picture might be just the ticket to freedom required.